Parenting in Practice: When No Means No

Consistency. It has to be one of the hardest parts about parenting – whether you’re struggling to be consistent in a nap schedule, making consistently healthy meals, or setting consistent rules. For me, it’s also one of the most important.

Teddy tested my consistency in saying “no” this afternoon, which is a big thing I’m working on with him. To set the stage – I had purchased a cookie and we headed to the beach to enjoy it. I decide we would split ½ of the cookie (he is only a year old, after all) and save the other half for later. Well, half the cookie was eaten and I went to put it back in the bag. Teddy was furious. He balled up his little fists, his face turned red, and he let out a SCREAM. He kicked the sand, threw his head back, and sobbed. I gently took his little hands and say “Teddy, no. We are not eating any more cookie, we are done.” He of course did not like this and continued to scream for about 2 minutes, which died down into a whiney whimper and eventually, he was distracted by sand toys and the cookie was forgotten.

At 17 months, Teddy already has lots of opinions and desires, and he is testing the boundaries. When I took the cookie away, he was upset, and he is still learning what will happen when he gets upset. The scream was piercing. People turned and stared at us as big fat tears rolled down his little cheeks. Of course it was embarrassing, and of course I hate seeing my baby cry. But I had told him no, and the tantrum was not going to change my answer. If I give in and give him the cookie now (which obviously would be easier, and hey it’s just a cookie, right?), then what message am I sending him? And what if next time I don’t have any more cookie to give him? How will he understand why he got the cookie before when he screamed, and can’t get the cookie now when he screams?

This tantrum, this EXPERIENCE, is exactly what needs to happen now, while he is still a pre toddler, in order to set the stage for a happy, secure child in the future.

Think of it from an adult perspective. Imagine your boss has really loose vacation policy. He says you can take between 10-20 days off a year. Sometime when you ask him for a day off, he’s like “sure sounds good!” and doesn’t care at all. Other times, he says no. If you try to plead your case, sometimes he’ll change his mind and say yes. Other times he will freak out at you – accuse you of taking advantage of the company….one time he even reported you to HR for taking too many days off! There seems to be no rhyme or reason for these decisions – you can’t figure out why sometimes it’s a yes and sometimes it’s a no. You just have to try your hardest and hope you get your time approved. Think of how stressful and confusing that would be!

Now let’s bring that back to the perspective of a child. Imagine you are a toddler who goes with Mom to the grocery store every week. You always see candy in the checkout aisle and you always want it. You grab a candy bar each week as you toddle by. Sometimes your Mom doesn’t care at all and tosses it in the cart. Other times she says no. When she says no, you see if you can get her to change her mind. You scream and cry and bang your fists on the floor. Sometimes she looks embarrassed and she hisses at you to get up and gives you the candy. Other times she drags you, screaming, to the door and yells and won’t give you the candy. Sometime she will finally give in at the end if you scream loud enough or if you hit her. But one time when you hit her you got in big trouble. Another time she cried, and another time she told you you could never have candy again.

Whoa. Can you imagine the adrenaline and stress coursing through that toddler every time they see the candy? What if instead, candy in the grocery store was off limits unless Mom told you there was a special treat. You rarely got candy, but when you did, she would let you know beforehand that it was a special day (perhaps you’d fallen off the swings and Mom was rewarding you for being very brave, or you had been very kind to your little sister and shared a new toy, etc). Even if you get the candy the same number of times (say, 25% of the time you go to the store), how different is this experience for the kid? And forget the kid, for the MOM?!

So because Teddy is still less than 2 years old, we’re at the boundary testing stage. He has not yet fully learned that no will always mean no. He is testing me. But slowly, we are coming around. He certainly understands what “no” means, and he is starting to learn that when Mama says no, she is not going to change her mind. The one minute tantrum today is an improvement over the 2, 3, 4, 5 minute tantrums he’s previously had. I’m focusing on instilling this in him now because I think we can all agree: a screaming one year old is a lot easier to deal with than a screaming five year old….especially one who might have a younger sibling watching and learning his or her behavior.

What do you do to cut down on tantrums, and how are you teaching your kids when no means no? Hit us up in the comments!

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